Books based on the popular computer game Minecraft continue to rack up impressive numbers for Scholastic and Skyhorse, the two houses publishing the majority of those titles for kids. Scholastic, the only official licensing publisher of Minecraft books in the U.S., is home to the officially licensed handbooks by Mojang, the company that created the game (and which was purchased by Microsoft last fall), and Skyhorse/Sky Pony has both a line of unofficial Hacks for Minecrafters books and two series of original, unofficial novels.
Scholastic’s four volumes, Minecraft: Combat Handbook, Minecraft: Construction Handbook, Minecraft: Essential Handbook, and Minecraft: Redstone Handbook, boast a combined total (encompassing trade, club and book fair quantities) of more than 17.2 million copies in print. Sales volume from the property helped boost Scholastic’s revenue by 2% for the fiscal year that ended May 31, 2014. A boxed set of the books was released in October, and updated editions of all four tiles and a new boxed set will ship July 28. In the meantime, Minecraft Blockopedia, a deluxe hexagonal shaped book that contains information about the blocks in the game as well as trivia and advice, hits shelves in March (with a $49.99 list price).
Debra Dorfman, v-p and publisher, licensing at Scholastic, explained her company’s entrée into the Minecraft arena and how the brand is exhibiting staying power. “We had been looking at games/gaming to license for a while and Minecraft kept trending high on every list,” she said via e-mail. “We also started watching YouTube videos of people playing Minecraft and tracking the number of people watching/following the gamers. We quickly learned that there are Minecon conferences, a Minecraft Education site started by a teacher, and that this property had a life of its own. The core audience was older to start and we began hearing more about it as it started to trend to a younger audience. Now parents, librarians and teachers have embraced the game because they see the educational value.”
The Scholastic titles hit the ground running in late 2013 and have only picked up steam. Last November Scholastic told PW that while the focus to date has been on distributing the Mojang titles created in the U.K. by Egmont, they have begun discussions with Mojang about ideas for potentially developing other types of titles, including some fiction.
Similarly, Sky Pony, the children’s imprint of Skyhorse, was on the hunt for its next hit when it zeroed in on Minecraft. “We’ve always looked to capitalize on trends because we can move faster than the bigger guys,” says Bill Wolfsthal, associate publisher at Skyhorse. “Pretty much every year we’ve hit a trend and timed it pretty well.” He cites examples The Zen of Zombie by Scott Kenemore and juicing and Paleo diet books on the adult side, and Sky Pony’s 2013 smash Loom Magic and its three follow-ups, which are based on the Rainbow Loom rubber-band weaving kit for kids.
According to Wolfsthal, Skyhorse founder and publisher Tony Lyons first announced his acquisition of the Minecraft book The Ultimate Unofficial Guide to Strategies for Minecrafters by Instructables.com, edited by Nicole Smith, in early 2014 (it pubbed in October). “The early response was really good,” says Wolfsthal. “One of our reps said that a customer in the Philippines would buy 2000 copies, which is pretty amazing.” Feeling some momentum, Lyons focused on the kids’ market and in spring 2014 acquired The Quest for the Diamond Sword: A Minecraft Gamer’s Adventure (Aug. 2014), first in a series of novels by Winter Morgan and the unofficial guidebook Hacks for Minecrafters by Megan Miller (Aug. 2014), both projects from agent/packager Hollan Publishing. Sky Pony published two more Morgan novels: Mystery of the Griefer’s Mark (Sept. 2014) and Endermen Invasion (Nov. 2014), generating total sales of more than 172,000 copies for her series last year. Three new novels are scheduled for 2015, beginning with Treasure Hunters in Trouble (Feb.). A pair of companion guidebooks by Miller were released last fall, Hacks for Minecrafters: Master Builder (Oct. 2014) and Hacks for Minecrafters: Combat Edition (Nov. 2014); her three 2014 titles had combined sales of just under 170,000 copies. Two additional volumes, Hacks for Minecrafters: Redstone and Hacks for Minecrafters: Command Blocks are scheduled for release in April 14 and May 19 respectively.
“Tony looked for self-publishing projects as well,” said Wolfsthal, which led to the acquisition of a trilogy of novels by Mark Cheverton, Invasion of the Overworld (Aug. 2014), Battle for the Nether (Aug. 2014) and Confronting the Dragon (Oct. 2014), the inaugural volumes in his Gameknight999 series. The three titles sold more than 202,000 copies combined through January 4, 2015. “We had the first novels [along with Morgan’s books] for young people set in the Minecraft universe,” Wolfsthal said. “Parents were more than happy to pick them up because they are ‘real’ text-driven books, not just how to play the game.” Cheverton has a second trilogy rolling out now, beginning with Trouble in Zombie-town released this month, followed by Jungle Temple Oracle arriving April 1 and Last Stand on the Ocean Shore due July 1. Cheverton, according to Woflsthal, has a teaching background in math and physics, and began his publishing career by writing down the stories he made up for his son, who likes Minecraft.
All of Skyhorse’s Minecraft titles received strong support from major mass market accounts including Target, Costco, Walmart, and Toys ’R Us, as well as from Barnes and Noble. Wolfsthal pointed to teamwork with his company’s distributor as an important factor in building the Minecraft success as well. “Perseus jumped on it when we asked them to,” he noted.
Though sales are robust right now, no publisher wants to be stuck with inventory when the Minecraft craze cools. “I think a big strategy for longevity is not over-publishing,” Dorfman said. In addition to the 2015 releases, she said Scholastic is working on a few more titles for 2016. As an example of a licensed publishing program with legs, Dorfman said, “We have been publishing Pokémon for over 10 years and that property is an evergreen for us. New generations of kids are being introduced to the property every year because the licensor has managed it so well. They introduce new themes but also spread out new releases. We believe Minecraft has the same kind of potential and we’d like to be there for the long term.”
At Skyhorse/Sky Pony, “We’ve largely stayed ahead of trends, but we’ve been caught holding the bag, too,” said Wolfsthal. However, any miscalculations have been minor, judging by the company’s overall performance. “We’ve had success by being fluid and flexible,” noted Wolfsthal of Skyhorse’s rapid growth since opening its doors in 2006 and releasing its first titles in 2007. In 2008 Skyhorse had total sales of $5 million and the company closed out 2014 with $32 million in total sales. “Sales were up 23% last year,” he adds. Looking ahead at least to the near future, Wolfsthal said, “We’ve built a reputation with our customers because our books are solid. We’ll be on this wave till it hits the beach.”